Friday, November 23, 2007

Tuscany and Rome: Eating, Drinking and Being Warm

Oh dear.

So, since getting back from Italy, I've really fallen down on the blogging job. That always seems to happen at the end of the trip-- suddenly the last couple of weeks of a vacation start to accelerate and it all becomes a giant blur. But before I get too far away from it all, I thought I'd at least jot down a few of the food and drink places we visited that really stood out as we travelled through Montalcino, Siena and Rome. Put these in your address book -- they're worth visiting!


Dario Cecchini's Macelleria (and SoloCiccia) in Panzano- The Dante-spouting, opera loving butcher who featured in a chapter of Bill Buford book Heat, is actually quite the friendly guy. We arrived at around 10:30 in the morning and first thing, he's heating up meatloaf samples and pouring a stack of glasses of Chianti. With Pavarotti blasting on the CD, we chatted a bit about San Francisco (where I gathered that his wife lived), we ate some snacks and then we bought a cannonball-sized meatloaf, plus he threw in a a bottle of his magic "Bam!"-- Chianti spices that are good for seasoning anything from meat to bread. Dario's new restaurant, SoloCiccia or "only meat," is across the street.

Enoteca La Fortezza, Montalcino- One of my favorite wine places to visit in all of Tuscany. Why? Because it's comfortable. The staff there is knowledgeable, incredibly helpful-- and if you get them chatting, they'll tell you all you need to know. Questions about the differences between Brunello producers? Want some tips on wineries? Need to know what the archery contest is all about? Looking for tips on which Quartiere to root for? Head up to the Fortezza and settle in with a nice glass of wine.

Enoteca Franci, Montalcino- Near the Fortezza, this unassuming shop stocks a predictably wide range of Brunellos. The proprietor seemed less than interested in chatting with us, however, their wildflower honey really knocked my socks off. Succulent without being overly sweet, it is perfect just slathered on bread.

Fiaschetteria Toscana- viale della Liberta 5 (off the main square). A pleasant little spot to stop for a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, it was obviously also a cozy hangout for locals, whether their quartiere had won the archery contest of no. Behind the bar is a smaller area where you can order food and have dinner.

Castello Banfi-Located in Sant'Angelo Scala, south of the town of Montalcino, Banfi is perhaps the largest of all the Brunello producers in the area. Owned by the American Mariani family, Banfi is also the most tourism-ready of the local wineries, with tasting room, accommodation and touring facilities that look a lot like Napa estates. There's also a restaurant as well as a luxury guest rooms.

Sant'Anna in Camprena- The old convent that served as a location for the film The English Patient is now also an agriturismo. The tiny dirt road that turns off from teh Route to Pienza was lined with swaying cypresses just like the movie, and as we walked around, the only sounds we heard were teh wind and the birds. It's easy to see why it was chosen for the film, as the air of absolute peace and solitude makes it the perfect place for contemplation. Well worth a detour or a longer stay.


Everyone who's been to Siena loves the city and it's no mystery as to why. There's nothing more fun than wandering the city and discovering the charms of its medieval streets.

Pasticceria Nannini-Via Massetana Romana 42/44. With all that marble and crystal, Nannini's looks more like a swank place for tea than a spot for a casual coffee stop. nevertheless, the coffee is good, and the pastries are better. It's a convenient stop along the Banchi Sopra between the Campo and the church of San Domenico.

Enoteca Italiana-Fortezza Medici. The repository of examples Italy's greatest wines, the Enoteca is a pleasant spot to pass a few hours. If our bartender wasn't as warm and friendly as our friends at the Montalcino Enoteca, he was nevertheless knowledgeable. At the Enoteca, your wine tasting can range across the many regions Italy, making it a super spot to try styles you've nver heard of before.

Gelateria Kopa Kabana-via dei Rossi 52/54. Another entrant in the "Best gelato in Italy" category, Kopa Kabana is tucked away down a street off the Banchi Sopra.

Gelato here looked suspiciously close to "neon mound of hrmph." Nevertheless, their hazelnut was acceptable, and texture was rather good. It just wasn't the best gelato in Italy.

Trattoria La Torre- Via Salicotto 69, Siena, +39 577 28 7548. Came highly recommended from foodie friends and it was a homey delicious little trattoria. Simple food, nothing too high end, and do bring along your Eating and Drinking in Italy because they're going to recite the menu to you in Italian. Portions are large, and be warned that your server will come around after each course and say quite matter-of-factly, what do you want next? You'll find yourself stuffed to the gills and yet somehow feeling compelled to order a whole fish.

Antica Trattoria Papei-piazza del Mercato 6, behind the Torre. A warmly pleasant and informal place, Antica Trattoria looks like it caters to its share of tourists, but that doesn't make the food any less delicious. Pastas are served in a delicious sauce, and the house wine we had, a DOCG Chianti for 3 Euros, was super.

Wednesday Flea Market- Need a strainer and a wooden spoon for your undersupplied vacation rental? Or perhaps you need boots? Napkins? Plastic tablecloths? Scarves, jeans, cappucino makers, underwear, jewelry, shower curtains? You'll findincredible bargains over at the Medici Fortress on Wednesday mornings, but leave yourself plenty of time to wander through the miles and miles of stalls.

In Rome, we stayed in an apartment (courtesy of, so once again, we did more shopping for food and cooking at home than eating out in restaurants. We did try to find a few restaurant recommendations, like Costanza or Casa Bleve, but as we were here over the holiday weekend, many places were closed. Still, we found a lot of other spots we liked-- none more than:

Campo dei Fiore Market- Need we say anything more? Except maybe "Open Daily."

Il Forno Campo dei Fiore- Campo dei Fiore 22. On our first day in Rome, we arrived too late in the day to hit the open-air market in the Campo, but we did visit several shops on the square to get food for our dinner. We were so excited to be shopping in Rome, that we enthusiastically pointed all over the place. It's amazing that we did only wind up with one loaf of their delicious bread and a couple of pastries for our breakfast.

Il Fiorentino- Campo dei Fiore 17/18. We wandered into this little shop not quite knowing what we wanted or whether the place was any good, but the butcher behind the counter was exceptionally patient with our rudimentary Italian, and helped us pick out some fantastically flavored sausages to go into our pasta that evening. If we'd had an oven we would have been back again for one of the beautiful roasts they had trussed up in their case.

Caffe Farnese-on the Piazza Farnese 106/107. Recommended as a pleasant stop after the vagaries of market shopping, Caffe Farnese does indeed make a lovely little spot to sit and soak up a little sunlight in the mornings. Add in a newspaper from the newstand in the nearby Campo dei Fiore and you have a relaxing few hours away from the hustle and bustle.

Volpetti's- via della Scrofa 31/32, 06-683-00-334. There's another location on via Marmorata, but when we stumbled across Volpetti's on via Scrofa, we couldn't help wandering in.

The guy behind the counter spoke about as much English as we did Italian, but on the spur of the moment, I attempted to communicate that we had pan forte and were looking for cheese to go with it. After a momentary confusion, he cottoned on to what we wanted and found us two fantastic little goat cheeses, one wrapped in cherry leaves and the other in chestnut leaves. He waved a cheese at us indicating we should smell -- and it smelled pretty damn fine. We
had a great conversation, even though neither one of us spoke the other's language and ultimately left there with some bacon and salumi to boot.

Gusto's- Piazza Augusto Imperatore 28. It's a food store, it's a wine bar. It's a cafe, it's a ristorante. It's a pizzeria AND a drive-thru cheese store. And it's all crammed into one narrow Mussolini-era building that faces the old Mausoleum of Augustus and the new monstrosity by Richard Meier. Gusto's has quickly become THE foodie destination in Rome, and though we had a seriously adverse reaction to the high-handed dismissiveness of the sommelier (who basically foisted a wine upon us with very little effort to find out what we wanted to drink) the food was very good, and the cooking tool store was quite charming.

Tre Scalini-Piazza Navona. At Tre Scalini, you're paying for the fact of sitting at Tre Scalini. Still, sitting and watching the show that is the Piazza Navona go by is a tradition for a reason-- it's fabulous fun.

Possibly our favorite moment was when a strangely dressed woman in many layers--obviously The Official Crazy Woman of Piazza Navona--stopped by to chat with our waiter. Her "crazy"
persona dropped for a moment and they talked like old friends, then she hoisted the old "crazy" persona back onto her face and moved on to bark at the wind in the Piazza. Life is so much fun to watch.

Cafe Sant'Eustachio- Piazza Sant'Eustachio 8. When you're talking about the real deal, the best coffee in all of Rome--maybe all of Italy-- in my humble opinion, you must be talking about Sant'Eustachio. Is it the baking powder? The pimped up machinery? The sweat of the crowds at the bar? Who knows? But their coffee is most definitely unlike any other we had on our entire trip -- smooth, rich, fragrant, and utterly beautiful.

Gelato San Crispino- Our candidate for the best gelato in Rome. We saw many nasty piles of neon gelato everywhere and people happily consuming out-of-season neon garbage. But San Crispino had a huge variety of fabulous imaginative flavors. On their menus, though, a few to definitely try are the merengas--creamy gelato with crisp bits of merengue mixed into them.

One review waggishly suggested that the guys at San Crispino look like lab techs. If this is what it takes to make good gelato, unleash the technology. Oh, and the hazelnut? Still not Amorino, but damn good -- not too sweet and a beautiful fragrance.

A couple of other odds and ends. Yes, the eggs are indeed better there. As part of the normal course of things you get the kind of eggs, with that beautiful golden yolk and firm white, that we pay $7 a dozen for around here -- for 1 Euro.

Why can't we do that here? Perhaps we need to assign each egg its own identity card, as they do in Italy, where -- I kid you not-- we got eggs that were each individually stamped on the shell.

But after all the travelling, after all the walking, the scurrying from place to place, you might ask what it was that we were really seeking on this trip? But, uh, don't suppose you could, uh, tell us where we might find a, um, find a, uh, a, um, a uh--

"A G-rr-rr-rr-rrail?"

No comments: